Monday, October 31, 2011

Milk: Why do we love to hate it—and hate to love it?

A short piece for today, this last day of October, and I’ll tell you from the outset that what you’re about to read has very little to do with Halloween. I figure there are already pumpkins enough out there; and besides, I have a great pumpkin recipe I’m going to share with you closer to Thanksgiving—and it’s not for pumpkin pie! But the fact that it's Halloween does me think about children. More specifically, it makes me think about children coming home with candy, way too much candy. As far as I'm concerned, the best thing to do with all that candy is wash it down with a great big glass of milk. Ice cold milk. Straight out of the fridge. What could be better? Well, according to many adults I know, almost anything.

In fact, it’s hard to think of a food that inspires as emotional a response as milk. Drinking a glass of the stuff, that is. Pouring it over a bowl of cereal is fine and adding some to your morning coffee is OK too, but gulping down a glass of it straight out of the fridge? A little iffy. And even if you do indulge in a glass at home now and then—generally with a late-night cookie, a slice of chocolate cake, a piece or two of Halloween candy, or, on the other hand, over a lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—do you order it when you’re dining out on poisson au beurre blanc or pasta puttanesca? My guess is no. Why not? Why is it considered right and proper to order wine or beer or soda or water or even (if you live in the Midwest) coffee with your dinner, but not milk?

Because milk is for babies. They’re the ones for whom it’s produced, after all—nature didn’t intend it to nourish adults, which is why most babies are weaned from their mothers’ breasts about the time they start cutting the teeth that allow them to enter the wonderful world of solid food. Why bother with milk when you’ve got so many more appetizing options? And then there’s the business of lactose intolerance. Mammals generally lose the ability to digest lactose at about the age of two, which is explanation enough of why so many adults gag at the thought of a glass of milk: quite literally, it makes them sick.

 But the more you think about the matter, the more you have to admit that there are a lot of adults who keep drinking milk long after they’ve been weaned from the breast (granted, the milk of other species). They don’t associate milk with infancy; they just like to drink it and they can do so with no ill effect to their digestive systems, no doubt because milk has comprised such a major part of their diet for so many millennia that their physiologies have adapted to it. Who are they? The people who call it milk—or Milch, melk, mjolk—as opposed to the people who call it lait, latte, leche, or lapte. Whereas the milk-drinkers love the stuff, the latte-drinkers find it disgusting. Interesting, huh? People who speak a northern European language like German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and, yes, even English drink it, and people who speak a Romance language like French, Italian, Spanish, or Romanian don’t. Who said there’s no connection between the sounds that come out of our mouths and the things that go into them?

How this lacto-linguistic divide came into being is a matter of historical record. When Julius Caesar first stepped foot on northern soil, his astonished comment about the natives was “they live on milk and meat.” We can only imagine how queasy he must have felt: there were actually people who drank milk? But being Roman, he didn’t call it milk; he called it lacte, the beverage that he associated with babies—and with people who were little more than babies, barbarians. No Roman citizen would touch the stuff (except, of course, to transform it into cheese)—and neither did anyone who spoke a language that evolved from Latin. Up north, however, where the stuff was called milk, they saw not a thing wrong with drinking the raw liquid—and so they did. As they do to this day.

But here’s the rub. Even those of us who call it milk and who drink it as adults nonetheless echo Caesar’s disbelief and disdain. Certainly we do in public. Which is why we’re far more likely to drink it in the privacy of our own homes—standing in front of the refrigerator in our pajamas in the middle of the night—than when we’re out and about in the public eye. Don’t believe me? Just try ordering a glass the next time you’re out for dinner and see for yourselves what your friends and relations have to say.

Now, back to Halloween. I wonder if I've got enough candy to hand out tonight. I wonder if I've got enough milk on hand to wash down whatever's left over.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Case of Pie v. Tart

Many years ago I read an article in The New Yorker called “The Great American Pie Expedition.” It was about a car trip that the writer, Sue Hubbell, had taken with her German Shepherd Tazzie. Together, they’d traveled the back roads of the country with one goal in mind: “to eat pie” (at least that was her goal; I don’t think Tazzie shared it). That’s it. She just really wanted to eat pie. And pie she ate: blueberry and raspberry in New England, Shaker lemon in Kentucky; banana and coconut in “the cream-pie belt” of Pennsylvania and Ohio—not to mention, of course, apple, cranberry, pecan, and pumpkin, as summer gave way to fall. Mention was made, as well, of sour-cream raisin and even a peanut-butter pie.

It was a beautiful essay, filled with fields of wild blue phlox and buttercups (with a dog in the car you have to stop often). I especially remember her quoting a man she met who claimed that “pie judgments are sexually dimorphic.” “Women judge a pie by its crust,” he told her, “men by its filling.” Brilliant, I thought to myself; and, based on my own experience, how true.

Today the article comes to mind for a different reason. I’ve been wondering about why it is that we Americans so love our pies—as opposed to tarts, that is, which in a way are quite similar, but which we tend to reserve for fancy occasions or for when we dine out. Our most patriotic holidays feature pies: can you imagine July 4th or Thanksgiving without them? There’s something utterly all-American about pie. The admen at Chevrolet knew what they were doing with their “Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet” jingle. We’ve even created a day in their honor: did you know that January 23rd is National Pie Day?

None of this is to say that we Americans are alone in our love of pies. Almost every cuisine you can think of has some sort of filled dough concoction. Obviously they’re popular the world over. It’s generally thought that the ancestor of European (and, hence, American) pies was born in ancient Greece and Rome where they used to enclose meat in a pastry made of flour and oil. It’s also thought that the Latin word torta, “a round loaf of bread,” came to refer to these pastries as the Romans set out to conquer the world, taking their pastry with them. Up north, olive oil was replaced by more readily available butter or lard, resulting in pastry dough that could be rolled out or molded. Thus was born both the “tortes” and “tartes” of France and, centuries later, of England: a happy marriage of a Roman name and northern fat, whether butter or lard. Some of the earliest English recipe compilations we have include a variety of “tartes” and “tartletes,” which back then were usually filled with bits of meat. Odd as it may sound, it was probably those bits of meat that gave us our distinctive English word pie, from the last syllable of magpie, the bird famous for stealing bits and pieces of things to construct its nest. To this day pies can still contain meat—just think of shepherd’s pie, steak-and-kidney pie, or the chicken pot pies that we tend to prefer on this side of the Atlantic—although it was the fruity ones that really took off after the Pilgrims brought their pies to America. It was here that dessert pies came into their own, allowing Sue Hubbell, a few hundred years later, to feast on the likes of Shaker Lemon Pie, Nantucket Cranberry Pie, Chocolate Meringue Pie, Shoofly Pie, Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, and so many more.

What I conclude from this brief excursus through the history of pie is this: although most people bake something like them, only English speakers call them pies. So why is it, I wonder, that we adapted the French tarte, whereas they never cozied up to our pie? Why is it that they bake tartes, but not pies, whereas we English speakers bake both? And is the biggest difference between them based on ingredients and technique or, as I have a hunch, does it reflect instead our very different attitudes toward the two?

Culinary historians distinguish between pies and tarts as between two distinctly different confections: pies have flaky crusts, whereas tarts have crumbly ones; pies are baked in sloping-sided pans; tarts in pans with removable bottoms; pies have more filling and, often, a top crust, whereas tarts are always open-faced. All true, but I think that to the layman’s eye, the biggest difference is that one’s fancy and one’s not. If I were to tell you I’d just baked an apple tart, you’d think I was out to impress you. If I were to invite you over for a slice of apple pie, you’d be more likely to conjure up visions of a red checked tablecloth in a warm and fuzzy kitchen. Face it: a tarte aux pommes sounds more elegant than an apple pie, even though your guests might think you a bit snooty if you were to serve a tarte aux pommes next Thanksgiving.

There’s always an exception that proves the rule. Just consider the “Pop-Tart.” On the other hand, the Kellogg Company might have known precisely what they were up to. Nothing like a bit of French to add some panache.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Chutney

An unexpectedly quiet evening. A bumper crop of apples from a visit to an orchard earlier in the week. A bag of cranberries in the freezer since last Thanksgiving. I don’t know about you, but to me, a spare hour or two plus apples and cranberries equals chutney. Yes, I know that might not be your very first thought, but you see I’d already treated my family to an apple-cranberry crisp the evening before—which they devoured in record time—and I figured I’d vary things up with something savory. The beauty of chutney is that, apart from its starring fruit or vegetable, it’s made out of ingredients you tend to have on hand, it doesn’t take all that long to whip together, and people are unduly impressed when you serve up (or better yet, present them with a gift of) what they imagine must have taken the better part of a weekend to produce.

Within ten minutes, I’d peeled and chopped up my apples and had them happily simmering away on the stove with the cranberries (straight out of the freezer), some brown sugar and raisins for sweetness, some onion, ginger, and vinegar for tang, and a sprinkle of curry powder for a little warmth. Twenty minutes later, the various bits and pieces had magically transformed themselves into a ruby-colored, exotically-scented sludge of a paste that I let cool before spooning into jars which I then stashed in the nether regions of my refrigerator where no one ever looks. And there my chutney will remain, quietly mellowing and maturing until Thanksgiving rolls around, when its jewel-toned piquancy will shimmer all the more alluringly alongside the turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy—each and every one delicious, but not, as far as appearance is concerned, particularly attractive.

When I was a girl, the only chutney I knew was Major Grey’s Mango, which my mother always had a jar of on the door of the refrigerator. I don’t remember any of us ever actually eating it, though; she used to serve it with cheese and minced scallions as a fancy hors-d’oeuvre when company came over. It was when I went off to college in New York City that I discovered the wonderful world of spicy chutneys. I used to take the subway down to St. Mark’s Place and meander my way into one of any number of inexpensive Indian restaurants where you could dine like a rajah or rani for about $10.00 a person (admittedly, this was quite a few years ago). The moment you sat down, you were given a plate of crispy pappadum and a trio of chutneys, invariably including a spicy green one (whether coriander, chili, or mint), a tangy brownish-purple tamarind one, and burnished-red minced onion in cayenne.

At some point while I was eating my way through the gallons of chutney I consumed during my hundreds of visits to St. Marks Place, it dawned on me that the chutneys in Indian restaurants had very little in common with the Major Grey’s Mango in my mother’s refrigerator. At some point later, when I had a fully functioning kitchen of my own and had developed a fondness for producing jams, pickles, and chutneys, it occurred to me that my obviously Americanized apple and cranberry chutney was different still (they don’t have cranberries in India, after all!). What have they got in common other than the fact that they all consist of chopped up bits of fruits, herbs, and vegetables—which, by the way, is what the word sort-of means: it’s from the Hindi chatni— and ultimately from the Sanskrit catni—which means, simply, “to crush.”

It was Julie Sahni, author of Classic Indian Cooking, who finally set me straight. There are three types of popular relishes—or chutneys—she explains in her Classic Indian Cooking: chopped vegetable relishes (like the cayenne-sprinkled onion one); fresh herb pastes (like the chili, coriander and mint ones), and preserved relishes made by cooking cut-up pulpy fruits like apples, pears, tamarind, or mangoes, with sugar, vinegar and spices (like my mother’s Major Grey Chutney and the apple-cranberry one I cooked up the other night).

Then I happened to read David Burton’s wonderful The Raj at Table: A Culinary History of the British in India, which begins with a telling exchange of parting gifts, so to speak. Although British rule over India officially ended in 1947, the subcontinent held onto quite a number of specifically English institutions, including the parliamentary, legal, and railway systems, not to mention the language itself. What was not kept, unsurprisingly, was English food. On the other hand, when the English departed, after some hundreds of years in India they took very little with them. A few words perhaps—like bungalow, dinghy, jodhpur, jungle, pajamas, and shampoo. Mostly what they took was the food. Whether or not there really was an officer in the Bengal Lancers named Major Grey is a subject of much contention, but no one can deny the enduring popularity of the chutney that bears his name. It’s even inspired a little ditty:

All things chickeney and mutt’ny
Taste better far when served with chutney.
This is the mystery eternal:
Why didn’t Major Grey make colo-nel?

If the Brits got away with it, I figure, why can’t I? And so I give to you my recipe for an entirely inauthentic but very delicious American chutney. Make it today. Before you know it, it’ll be Thanksgiving.

Apple-Cranberry Chutney

3 cups whole cranberries (fresh or frozen)
4-5 apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
½ cup raisins (light or dark)
¼ cup minced fresh ginger
1 cup chopped onion
¼ cup vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but other fruit ones would be nice too)
pinch curry powder
grated zest of 1 lemon

Mix everything up in a large pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture is thickened. Let cool, spoon into jars, and refrigerate. Of course you can eat this right away, but it’s a lot better if you wait a few weeks. This is also great, by the way, with pears instead of (or even in addition to) the apples.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Honor of Columbus Day

If you’ve ever seen Frank Capra’s 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life, you’ll remember the scene when George Bailey, desperate to escape his creditors, wishes that he’d never been born. Miraculously his wish is granted and he’s given the profoundly unsettling opportunity to see what his hometown would be like had he never existed. To his shock and disbelief, nothing is as it should be. The most familiar sights had become strange. 

I realize that most people associate this movie with Christmas when it’s all but impossible to avoid, but to me it’s got just as much to say to us about the holiday we’re celebrating today, Columbus Day. There’s a great analogy buried in there just waiting to be brought to light: as George Bailey was bewildered by his familiar-yet-strange hometown, so too would we be confused by the familiar-yet-strange state of the world’s food had Columbus never sailed the ocean blue.
Just think about it. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, red, green and chili peppers, kidney and lima beans, corn, tapioca, vanilla, chocolate, peanuts, pecans, cashews, and the pièce de resistance of the Thanksgiving groaning board, the turkey—to name only a few (and that’s not including such other New World foods as the avocado, pineapple, mango, guava, papaya, grapefruit, jicama, Brazil and macadamia nuts, quinoa, wild rice, and quinine). Each and every one of these was “discovered” only after Columbus crossed the Atlantic, ostensibly in search of the East Indies. Logically, then, before 1492, the food the rest of the world ate must have looked and tasted very different.

For a moment, then, imagine yourself in George Bailey’s shoes, except instead of Bedford Falls, your hometown is our contemporary Global Village. Your guardian angel has just granted you a vision of the world at table had King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella never decided to fund Columbus’s voyage. (Of course someone else might have sailed across the ocean—it’s not called “The Age of Exploration” for nothing—but let’s suspend our disbelief for the sake of the analogy).

There’d still be pasta and pizza in Italy, but they’d lack their familiar blanket of tomato sauce. There’d still be polenta as well—not to mention mămăligă, the national dish of Romania—but they’d be made out of such grains as millet or chestnut flour as they had been for centuries before cornmeal eclipsed everything else. The countries of the Vodka Belt would still be drinking their favorite spirit, but it wouldn’t be distilled from potatoes or corn. There’d be no peanuts in Indonesian satays, no chili peppers in Indian curries, no paprika in Hungarian paprikash, and no vanilla beans in Madagascar. There’d be no butternut squash in the tagines of Morocco, no haricot verts to be blanched and tossed in butter and French tarragon, no cashews in Szechuan stir-fries, and, since there’d be no quinine, there’d be no gin and tonics at all. Nor would there be chocolate mousse, Belgian chocolate, Black Forest cake, or Sachertorte. In fact, there’d be no chocolate whatsoever. That’s right: absolutely no chocolate.

Every schoolchild knows that Columbus “discovered America” and proved to the world the earth was round (although in truth people had known this for centuries already). Why aren’t they taught what, to my mind, was his far more momentous contribution to world history: the introduction of such a wealth of new foods to the rest of the world? 

In honor of the day named after him, then, wouldn’t it be appropriate for the Global Village to celebrate with a meal comprised of nothing but New World ingredients? It could begin with a butternut squash soup and slices of molasses cornbread. A roast turkey could follow, accompanied by mashed potatoes, string beans, and cranberry sauce. For dessert, a trio of pies—sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan—and, of course, something decadently chocolate.

Oh wait, that’s Thanksgiving, the holiday commemorating the Pilgrims having survived their first year in the New World.

Let’s try again. How about instead of an all-American meal, we celebrate Columbus Day with a truly global meal, a meal that represents the marriage of Old and New? How about starting with that wonderful Italian tomato and bread soup, pappa al pomodoro, which simply couldn’t be without the tomatoes indigenous to Peru? How about a nice and spicy Vindaloo, that fiery specialty of the Goan region of India, colonized by the Portuguese who’d brought with them the chili peppers they’d discovered in Mexico—the chili peppers that were to forever transform the cuisine of the subcontinent. On the other hand, who could object to a Mafé, one of the most popular dishes of sub-Saharan Africa, in which chunks of whatever meat you like (chicken, lamb, beef, or even fish) are stewed in a sauce that features a trinity of New World ingredients: tomatoes, peanuts, and chili peppers?
For dessert, it’s got to be chocolate. My personal vote goes for a Sachertorte, that unforgettable Viennese confection invented by Franz Sacher in the early nineteenth century: layers of dense not-too-sweet chocolate cake are sandwiched together with apricot jam and then coated with dark chocolate. Traditionally served with whipped cream, it would be an unforgettable ending to our truly global meal. Those of you with more of a sweet tooth than I’ve got would have no cause to complain when served a scoop or two of Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream dripping with a Belgian chocolate sauce.

NB: Anyone who knows anything Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the New World knows that I’ve completely omitted discussion of one of the most important new foods of all: cane sugar grown on the plantations in Cuba and Hispaniola. The subject is a fascinating and enormous one that an old friend of mine has been urging me to write about. Jon, I promise: one day soon!

Monday, October 3, 2011

An Armchair Foodie

Some of you may know that when I’m not thinking or writing about food (am I ever not thinking or writing about food?), I teach classes on literature. Call it my oral obsession if you must, but to my mind food and words go together like bread and butter, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly—well, you get the picture. Obsessed with food words as I clearly am, then, who can be surprised that I’d be especially happy whenever the book I happen to be teaching talks about food? From the Bible (whose very first story involves fruit) to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (whose central scene is a dinner party featuring that marvel of French cuisine, a boeuf en daube), the books that are dearest to my heart are the ones that have food in them.

Just the other day, though, I was made painfully aware of the fact that not everyone gets as hungry as I do, whether physically or imaginatively, at the merest mention of food in literature. Of course I knew this already (I’ve been teaching for a lot of years), but somehow this time I was called up especially short.

I had assigned my students to read a short story in which a young Indian-American couple isn’t getting along too well (it’s the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, for those of you who are interested). “Name at least one of the dinners Shukumar makes for his wife Shoba,” I asked on the quiz I handed round at the start of the class. The answers were very revealing—and I don’t mean that they revealed whether or not the students had done the assigned reading. “Er . . . something that involves meat of some kind?” one student tentatively wrote. “I’m not sure. I didn’t see much point to it,” another admitted. I was completely taken aback. I’d thought it was a give-away question. How could they not remember that it was the fragrantly spiced lamb stew called rogan josh the husband cooked for his wife one night or shrimp in coconut milk (shrimp malai) another? Every time I read Lahiri’s stories, I either cook an Indian dinner or go out for one as soon as possible. How could they remain so indifferent?

They’re not foodies, that’s why. And it’s not that they’re college students who live in dorms, eat in dining halls, and haven’t yet had the time (or money) to turn into foodies. Because here’s another response and it’s also from a student: “Spiced lamb stew with rice and lentils; Indian shrimp in coconut milk.” Perfect recall. “I love to eat,” he whispered to me as he turned his quiz in, completed in record time; “I love it when books describe food.”

Obviously, there are two types of readers in the world and the distinction has nothing to do with age: foodie-readers and non-foodie-readers. When foodie-readers unexpectedly happen upon a description of food in a story or a novel, their eyes lose focus and their mouths start to water. Plot and character fade into the background, entirely unable to hold their own against such as passages as “a glass of bright pink yogurt with rose syrup, breaded mincemeat with raisins, a bowl of semolina halvah” and “April 2, cauliflower with fennel; January 14, chicken with almonds and sultanas.” Non-foodie-readers, on the other hand—the ones who, in the words of one such student, simply “eat to live”—skim over such passages impatiently, assuming them to be as irrelevant to the meat of the story as those insufferably intricate descriptions of landscapes are to nineteenth-century novels. Who really attends to such details after all? Fluff and nonsense—that’s all they are.

Well, here I am to say that I, for one, do attend to those details. I treasure such passages and remember them more clearly than I do almost anything else as years go by. I may forget the names of the characters and even the entire plot, but I’ll never forget if food appeared in the book. I remember a novel in which an unconventional and dissatisfied wife gives away the silly little bon-bons her husband imagines to be a properly feminine gift, preferring to eat such fortifyingly masculine foods as roasted chicken, broiled fish, cheese, and—heaven forfend!—beer. I remember another novel in which a hungry young Jewish immigrant woman resentfully watches her mother ladle out meager portions of Friday night’s chicken soup, carefully reserving all the glistening fat for the husband and father, the provider of the family, who, ironically, doesn’t provide a cent.

I’ve got hundreds of such memories, but my point is clear. To a certain kind of reader—the foodie-reader—food plays as central a role as characters, plot, setting, and all those other aspects of fiction you learned about in back in high school. When a young husband takes the time to cook traditional dinners for his wife who would just as soon have a bowl of corn flakes, you know the marriage hasn’t got a chance. When a woman forgoes bon-bons for beer, you know she’s rebelling against what a patriarchal society tells her she ought to like—and to be. When a young girl’s self-realization comes via the chicken fat in her Sabbath soup, you know that her resentment against her society’s values is about to boil over.

Why, though, do some students hungrily attend to such details while others skim indifferently on? Why do some understand that food, in literature as in life, conveys meaning while others see it as no more than a source of necessary vitamins and minerals? Who knows why some people are born foodies and others aren’t—and why, consequently, some grow up into foodie-readers and others don’t?

I used to think family background was responsible. Those whose memories of love, warmth, and belonging are intricately associated with food are more likely to appreciate that food is about so much more than nutrition. Those who grew up in houses where Monday meant pizza, Tuesday boxed macaroni & cheese, Wednesday hot dogs & baked beans, on the other hand, are less likely to associate food with joy—or sorrow or love or any other emotion for that matter. But this easy cause-and-effect may not be true. I know people who grew up in families where dinners were bland forgettable affairs to be gotten through as quickly and silently as possible, and who nonetheless grew up into incurable foodies, and I know others who come from dyed-in-the-wool foodie backgrounds yet somehow managed to remain immune to the pleasures of all things gustatory.

When all is said and done, I don’t think we’ll ever know why some people live to eat whereas others eat to live, but of one thing I’m entirely sure. If you don’t smell the spices in the rogan josh, or the wine and herbs in the boeuf en daube, or the slow-simmered chicken in the Sabbath soup—even if the aromas emanate from no more than words on a page—then you’re not a foodie-reader and you have not the slightest hope of understanding what the author (or should I say, foodie-writer?) was trying to express.